“[A] system of free speech confers countless benefits on people who do not much care about exercising that right. Consider the fact that, in the history of the world, no society with democratic elections and free speech has ever experienced a famine—a demonstration of the extent to which political liberty protects people who do not exercise it.”
— Cass Sunstein, Conformity: The Power of Social Influences
Nothing is easier than giving in to fear.
Fear—even justifiable fear—can be used by those in power as a pretense for further exertion of control over lives they already substantially influence. History provides an abundance of examples.
In the present case, the heinous violence we saw at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th has opened the door for a reinvigorated effort by powerful public and private institutions to de-platform, de-monetize, and otherwise suppress speech. Naturally, the proffered rationale is “safety,” and opportunists are predictably using that reasoning as a way to be as broad as possible in clamping down on speech they find objectionable.
I default to skepticism when facing these sorts of potential anti-speech shifts in cultural or legal norms. That skepticism also explains why I agree with those who have misgivings over the vigor with which influential entities are restricting speech. I find myself in the (eclectic, perhaps strange) company of the ACLU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Glenn Greenwald, among others.
The worry here isn’t limited to Twitter’s erasure of President Donald Trump from its platform, which was followed in short order by every other meaningful social network. These concerns also relate to the suppression of the pre-election New York Post story about Hunter Biden, as well as the selective and collusive destruction of the conservative-leaning Twitter alternative Parler—under the theory that it served to foment and coordinate the Capitol attack, even though, e.g., Facebook played at least as large a role.
This targeting based on politics is troubling enough. Yet, it was the de-platforming of Trump that most strikingly prompted some of the same anti-speech arguments I’ve been discussing for years. Specifically, critics dismissing free speech concerns by saying “Twitter (e.g.) is a private company, and can do what it wants.”
I agree. But there is often a wide gap between “can” and “should.”